After nearly half a decade, the 69 containers of waste that Filipino officials asserted were shipped illegally have finally departed home for Vancouver. The containers have been a source of tension between Canada and the Philippines, intensifying to a remarkable degree in the last month. The dispute, however, is part of a broader, recent trend of Asian nations pushing back against developed countries’ efforts to export recycled waste to their shores.

According to the Filipino government, 103 containers of garbage and electronic waste arrived in batches between 2013 and 2014, falsely labelled as “recyclable plastic scraps”. The containers were shipped by a private, Whitby-based firm, Chronic Inc., which has since gone dormant.

The dispute intensified in late April when Rodrigo Duterte threatened to “set sail to Canada and pour their garbage there”. Duterte eventually imposed a deadline of May 15th for the containers to be repatriated, which Canada did not meet. In a significant escalation of the dispute, Duterte then took the extraordinary step of recalling his ambassador and consuls-general from Canada.

The Canadian government then expedited the procurement process, and contracted French shipping giant Bollore Logistics for $1.14 M in mid-May. When it arrives in Canada, the waste will be incinerated in a waste-to-energy facility in Burnaby.

There are three significant takeaways from this dispute.

Effectiveness of International Naming & Shaming

Duterte’s threats on the world stage, combined with protests by environmental groups, created effective change & an expedited solution after slow progress over the last six years.

Despite being shipped in 2013, very little progress was made on this file. For two years, the Harper government tried to convince the Philippines to dispose of the waste domestically or for a neighbouring country to do the same. 26 containers were disposed of in landfills in July 2015 alone before the protests of Filipino environmental groups successfully ended this arrangement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the issue both times while he was in the Philippines in 2015 and in 2017, but bilateral talks between the two nations did not produce significant or noticeable action. One main sticking point was who would pay for the costs of the repatriation.

However, it was the recent shaming by Duterte that expedited the process indefinitely. This was not only asserted by Filipino Secretary of Foreign Affairs Locsin, but also by MP Kevin Lamoureux, chair of a parliamentary friendship group between Canada and the Philippines. Duterte’s particular word choice may have also aided in catching the media’s attention, effectively shaming Canada on the world stage.

Environmental groups in both countries sought to highlight their case that Canada may have violated the Basel Convention. The Convention is an international treaty aimed at preventing the trade of hazardous waste, specifically from developed to less developed countries, without consent. Environmental groups successfully sought a legal opinion stating that Canada had violated the convention, and brought it to the attention of the Prime Minister’s Office. Filipino environmental groups also raised the issue by protesting outside the Canadian Embassy in Manila.

The developments in the Philippines likely spurred Malaysia’s actions in also announcing repatriation of contaminated waste back to 14 different countries. It also might not be the last country to do so.

Waste as a Future Source of Bilateral Tensions

Arguably the largest change that arose out of this dispute is increased attention to the global recycling industry. It exposed more clearly the dynamic of the exporters typically being firms from OECD countries, using the EAP region as its dumping ground; the East Asia and Pacific Region (EAP) has taken in 75% of all plastic exports since 1988. A number of EAP countries enacted restrictions on incoming waste in recent years, desiring not to be the “dumping ground of developed nations.

Most notably, China effectively banned all non-industrial plastic waste imports beginning in early 2018, to the alarm of developed nations. By 2030, over 110 million tons of plastic waste will have been diverted as a result of this policy, mostly to countries that have comparatively weaker recycling management infrastructure.

While countries like China initially welcomed plastic intakes for reasons that it could be recycled and converted profitably, issues such as environmental degradation have recently become of greater concern. An additional level of complacency from governments of developed nations, via loose regulations, leads to either mislabelled or illegal shipments to developing nations.

The dispute with the Philippines also highlights another flaw of the recycling industry – that firms only buy our recyclable waste if its potential market value is strong, and if not, it will eventually land in either a landfill or an incinerator (typically in a developing country), or the world’s oceans.

Whereas it was previously cheaper to ship waste off, governments will accordingly face more pressure to develop more cost-efficient domestic waste management programs.

An Environmentally-Conscious Legal Regime

The international legal regime is what developing countries can, and have been using, to level the playing field with developed countries. Two recent developments, both in response to recent events in the EAP region, have proven to be effective.

Domestically, Canada amended its regulations in 2016, so that exporters had to apply for a permit from the government prior to shipping, if either Canada or the importing country regards the waste as hazardous. Previously, Canada’s regulations said the Basel Convention’s clauses only applied if only Canada regarded the waste as hazardous (note that Canada still technically does not consider plastic waste as hazardous, but the Philippines does).

The federal government touted these amendments as a way to prevent a repeat of the Philippines situation. The arrival of Canadian trash in Malaysia last week seems to poke holes in this assertion. Part of this has to do with the fact that the much of Canadian waste is shipped to the US, who themselves have not ratified the Basel Convention. Accordingly, legal developments in Canada have little effect if Canada continues to export waste through the US, who may mix in their own waste and then ship it to countries elsewhere.

On the multilateral front, the biennial Basel Convention Conference of the Parties in early May 2019 approved plastic waste to be included in the list of controlled hazardous substances – a very positive development. However, the 1995 amendment essentially prohibiting all exports of hazardous waste to developing countries, still has not entered into force; it still requires a handful more ratifications. Canada is notably not one of the ratifiers of the amendment.

The dispute between the Philippines and Canada, which could have ended quietly in bilateral talks, entered into a very public setting in April as Duterte sought to make an example of Canada. In doing so, the underlying dynamic of developed countries using developing countries as their dumping grounds was brought to public attention. As was the unfortunate reality of Canada’s recycling industry – how much of your waste is actually recycled mostly depends on market forces and private firms.

Edited by Jillian Giberson

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Alan Levin via Flickr Creative Commons